A chance and yet predictable encounter between a grizzly bear sow and a group of young Alaskans along the edge of the state’s largest urban area sent three juveniles to the hospital on Wednesday afternoon.
The extent of their injuries was not immediately clear, but the Anchorage Police Department said none were “life threatening.”
Only the day before the attack – with two bears shot and killed in the Eagle River area over the weekend – Ken Marsh, the public information officer for the Division of Wildlife Conservation in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, had mentioned the danger of increasing numbers of bears now moving down out of the Chugach Mountains to look for salmon in streams in the Anchorage area.
Eagle River is the largest bedroom community adjacent to the state’s largest city. All that separates it from the urban sprawl of Anchorage is Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson, a military facility with enough wild land to support both bears and wolves.
Wildlife biologists have only guess as to how many of the former inhabit the general Anchorage area. Bears are notoriously hard to census. But biologists have in the last couple years noticed the population was highly productive and a lot of cubs seemed to be surviving.
Those two things point to a growing bear population which ups the odds for chance encounters between bruins and people, no matter how much both might be trying to avoid each other.
Bears radio-collared and tracked by Fish and Game research biologist Sean Farley were regularly found to be moving off trails to let people pass, then getting back on trails to resume their journey to wherever they happened to be headed.
Bears are smart enough to understand that people are dangerous and should be avoided, he has said. Those that aren’t smart enough usually ended up dead.
The police report on the Wednesday attack at a campground along Eagle River was sketchy as to what happened. Marsh said he didn’t have a lot of details, though he was aware police officers shot at the bear a bunch of times.
Fish and Game personnel called in to track the animal found a small amount of blood, he said. The blood trail quickly ended, but they managed to follow the animal’s trail for another three hours before deciding it was not seriously injured, and they were unlikely to catch up with it.
Along the way, they also encountered a homeowner who had seen the bear and was able to confirm it was a sow with smallish, cubs of the year, Marsh said.
The police report said it was “determined that four juveniles were hiking together in the woods in the area of the campground when three were injured by a grizzly with two cubs. After the attack the group became separated as some went looking for help. Over a dozen officers responded; it took approximately 30 minutes, after the initial call to Dispatch, for all four hikers to be located.”
It was unclear who called to report the attack or where the juveniles were eventually found.
“While officers were searching for the hikers, they were charged by the brown bear,” police said. “Officers fired shots at the bear, and the bear ran off into the woods.”
It was unclear how many officers were involved in that incident, how many shots they fired, or whether they were shooting at the same sow with cubs. Marsh said that while he was at the campground, a black bear twice wandered into the parking lot. There could have been other bears in the area as well.
“Area residents are asked to use an abundance of caution as both moose and bears have new babies this time of year,” the police statement said.
An Eagle River woman was hospitalized in serious condition late last month after she accidentally got too close to a moose cow with calves while walking on an Eagle River path. Chance encounters with wildilfe – both moose and bears – can happen almost anywhere in the Anchorage area.
Most problems are easily avoided by giving the animals a wide berth, but that requires vigilance. Wildlife biologists in Anchorage have regularly lamented the people who aimlessly wander trails in the city’s green belts or, worse yet, wear earbuds and listen to music while walking or running on area trails.
Situational awareness is the key to avoiding problems, the experts say.
Grizzly sows with cubs are the most dangerous animals. They are prone to act aggressively if they think their cubs are threatened, but the attacks are rarely fatal.
The bears’ intent appears to be to neutralize the threat and flee with the cubs. If you encounter a sow with cubs, talk to the animal calmly but firmly while slowly backing away. If the sow charges, stand your ground until it is almost on you, then drop onto your stomach, link your fingers behind your head, and spread your legs to try to make it difficult for the bear to flip you over.
If you encounter a sow black bear with cubs, try to ignore it. There is no evidence of a black bear sow ever attacking a person to protect its cubs. Black bear sows will sometimes make a big fuss. They will huff, puff, stomp and moan, but they do not attack.
The only black bears with which there is a concern are those that circle or sidle up to you. Those are bears sizing up humans as prey. These bears are very, very rare, but if one of them decides to attack you will be in trouble.
Never play dead with such a bear. It will try to eat you.
Many Alaskans now carry a can of pepper spray as a precaution when they venture away from non-paved areas. The red-pepper is sprayed into a bear’s face at close range to discourage an attack. The spray also works on moose.